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Zinsser on writing: “Short is better than long. Simple is good.”

William Zinsser, the notable American writer, editor, literary critic, and teacher who wrote the hugely successful cult primer On Writing Well, has passed away. He died on May 12, 2015 in Manhattan, New York City, at the age of 92.

William Zinnser

Educated at Princeton University, Zinsser began his career as a journalist for the New York Herald Tribune, where he worked as a feature writer, drama editor, film critic and editorial writer. Throughout the 1970s, Zinsser taught writing at Yale University, where he was the fifth master of Branford College (1973–1979). He served as executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club from 1979 to 1987. He retired from teaching at The New School and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism because of advanced-stage glaucoma.

Apart from On Writing Well, a phenomenal bestseller that is now on its seventh edition, Zinsser wrote 16 other books, among them Writing to Learn; Writing with a Word Processor; Mitchell & Ruff (originally published as Willie and Dwike); Spring Training; American Places; Easy to Remember: The Great American Songwriters and Their Songs; Writing About Your Life; and recently, Writing Places, an autobiography.

Writing Word ProcessorOn Writing WellWriting About Your Life

A passionate advocate of clarity and brevity in writing, Zinsser once told an international group of journalism students that English isn’t as musical as Spanish, Italian, or French, isn’t as ornamental as Arabic, and isn’t as vibrant as some other foreign languages. Even so, he said, he is hopelessly in love with English “because it is plain and it is strong.” He explained: “It has a huge vocabulary of words that have precise shades of meaning; there’s no subject, however technical or complex, that can’t be made clear to any reader in good English—if it’s used right. Unfortunately, there are many ways of using it wrong.” 

Zinsser then proceeded to explain that to write well in English, writers need to desist from using the many long and pompous Latin words like “implementation,” “maximization,” and “communication” that strangle and suffocate the language. “Those long Latin usages,” he said, “have so infected everyday language in America that you might well think, ‘If that’s how people write who are running the country, that’s how I’m supposed to write.’ It’s not.”

He concluded his talk by asking his audience to repeat this mantra after him: “Short is better than long. Simple is good. (Louder) Long Latin nouns are the enemy. Anglo-Saxon active verbs are your best friend. One thought per sentence.”

Read Mark Singer’s “Tuesdays with Zinsser” in now!

Read William Zinsser’s “Writing English as a Second Language” in The American Scholar now!

Read my 2010 essay on William Zinsser, “To write well in English, treat those long Latin nouns as the enemy,” in the Forum now!

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